When Mirza Ghalib Came To Kolkata

When Ghalib Came To Kolkata

Why are these songs so slow and sound so sad I asked my father, he was listening to the newly purchased double cassette album which was a collection of Ghazals sung by Jagjit Singh. He was so deeply engrossed that he almost missed my question and only on my second attempt did he reply that these were a collection of Ghalib. For years I had imagined Mirza Ghalib to be the one featured on the cassette cover which later when I grew up realized that it was, in reality, the photo of the actor Nasiruddin Shah. Little did I realize that one day I would roam around the streets of old Delhi and Kolkata just to trace Ghalib.

It all started during a recent trip to New Delhi and since I am working with a book retailing company I am privileged to be surrounded by books and literature lovers all the time. My visit to Delhi was nearly after a five-year gap thus there was lot to catch up when meeting old friends and one of them was Vijay Kumar Sharma who has been a regular follower of my blogs and travel tales. During one of our conversations, I had mentioned to him that somewhere I had read that the house of Mirza Ghalib was very near to Connaught Place. Next day he presented me with a book which talked about forgotten heritage places around Delhi and in there was a mention about Ballimaran (Gali Qasim Jan) which was quite near to Chawri Bazar Metro station. This place was just three metro stops from Connaught Place and during a weekend managed to track this place.

Gali Qasim Jan – Ballimaran

When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (1)
The Street Signage at Gali Qasim Jan (Ballimaran)
The House of Mirza Ghalib in Delhi
The House of Mirza Ghalib in Delhi

This visit was a life changing experience for me and this all happened by a stroke of luck. As I was visiting Ghalib’s house I saw some preparations going on and on enquiring, I came to know that an open mike was being arranged that afternoon for Ghalib’s fan and anyone can read out their own creation or just read from the master’s collection. Spending the afternoon out there with poetry lovers was truly a reward in itself. This was the key moment when I realized why my father was so engrossed in those ghazals and from that moment on I became a fan of Ghalib.

The Only Known Photograph of Mirza Ghalib in 1868 – (Courtesy Columbia University, the photo belonged to Mrs. Santosh Mathur, great-granddaughter of Babu Shiv Narain. The scan is provided here through the courtesy of Alok Rai and Rajul Mathur, and through the good offices of Francesca Orsini)
The Only Known Photograph of Mirza Ghalib in 1868 – (Courtesy Columbia University, the photo belonged to Mrs. Santosh Mathur, great-granddaughter of Babu Shiv Narain. The scan is provided here through the courtesy of Alok Rai and Rajul Mathur, and through the good offices of Francesca Orsini)

Mirza Ghalib in Kolkata?

While reading and researching about Mirza Ghalib it struck me that Ghalib had come to Calcutta (Kolkata) and stayed here for nearly one and a half years. This was unknown to me and thus began my adventure to track Ghalib in my own city. Unfortunately very little is present online and whatever is present is there in a scattered way across various places and libraries.

What I tried to do next was to retrace his footsteps in the city trying to figure out where he most probably would have stayed and places where he had visited. There is a road named after the poet but in reality, it has no direct connection with Ghalib and most probably must have been renamed in random.

When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (4)
The Street Signage Showing Mirza G(h)alib Street Which Has No Direct Connection With Ghalib

His main reason to come to Kolkata was nothing to do with his writings but to appeal to the government of East India Company to restore a pension which his family was receiving and was halved due to some reason which was not acceptable to Ghalib and he had previously tried in vain to appeal his case in Delhi, Firozpur, Bharatpur, Kanpur, and Lucknow. Finally, he decided to travel to Kolkata the then capital of undivided India where he would directly appeal.

This pension was very important for Ghalib since without the full amount it was difficult for him to survive in a city like Delhi and was desperate to get the full amount. To get the money for the journey he pawned his pen and with the money, he traveled to Kolkata.

Timeline of Mirza (Ghalib) Asadullah Beg Khan

Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan (his real name) was born on 27th of December 1797 in the city of Agra though his ancestry was from the Aibak Turks who were settled in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and died on 15th of February 1869 in Delhi.

A details timeline will help to understand the life of the poet in a better way and also will help us understand more about the pension which he was supposed to receive. All data collected from Columbia University.

1750’s – Ghalib’s grandfather Mirza Quqan Beg Khan comes to India from Samarkand, settles in Lahore.

1754Mirza Quqan Beg Khan moves to Delhi.

1756 Mirza Quqan Beg Khan takes service with the prince Shah Alam.

1763 Mirza Quqan Beg Khan marries.

1765 – Ghalib’s father Abdullah Beg Khan is born, in Delhi.

1778 – Mirza Quqan Beg Khan dies.

1793 – Ghalib’s father Abdullah Beg Khan marries Izzat un-Nisa Begam.

1797 December 27 – Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan is born, Agra.

1802 Abdullah Beg Khan dies, is buried at Rajgarh in Alwar; his younger brother Nasrullah Beg Khan takes charge of the widow and children; Nasrullah Beg Khan is married to the sister of Ahmad Bakhsh Khan, Navab of Firozpur Jhirka and Loharu.

1803 – Nasrullah Beg Khan is the commander of Agra Fort, under the Marathas.

1803 – Nasrullah Beg Khan changes sides, makes over the fort to Lord Lake; is appointed the commander of 400 cavalries at a salary of Rs. 1,700 per month.

1806 Nasrullah Beg Khan dies in a fall from an elephant. His survivors, including equally Nasrullah Beg Khan’s mother and three sisters, and Ghalib and his sister and brother, are granted a pension of Rs.10,000 annually, to be paid from the revenues of Ahmad Bakhsh Khan’s estate (who was probably granted some of Nasrullah Beg Khan’s property).

1806 – The grant is reduced by Ahmad Bakhsh Khan to Rs. 5,000; the other half is granted to Khvajah Haji.

1807-08 – Ghalib begins writing poetry, using the name ‘Asad’.

1810 August 18 Ghalib is married in Delhi to Umra’o Begam (age 11), daughter of Nawab Ilahi Bakhsh Khan ‘Ma’ruf’, younger brother of Navab Ahmad Bakhsh Khan of Firozpur Jhirka and Loharu.

1812 – Ghalib moves to Delhi permanently; lives for a while with his father-in-law, then moves to a rented house in Gali Qasim Jan.

1816 – Starts writing with the name ‘Ghalib’.

1825 – Khvajah Haji dies; Ghalib begins seeking restoration of the full pension; he goes to Firozpur Jhirka to talk with Navab Ahmad Bakhsh Khan and General Ochterlony.

1825 November – Ghalib makes a second fruitless visit to Firozpur Jhirka, hoping in vain to meet Ochterlony’s successor Metcalf through Ahmad Bakhsh Khan and improve his pension situation; he goes to Bharatpur with Ahmad Bakhsh Khan and Metcalf, returns with Ahmad Bakhsh Khan to Jhirka in December and stays till September 1826.

1826 October Ghalib leaves Firozpur for Kanpur, where Metcalf is reported to be encamped but is unable to meet with Metcalf; he falls ill, and upon his recovery proceeds to Lucknow. There he imposes excessive conditions for meeting the Nawab, and thus doesn’t meet him; he again falls ill.

1826 October 13 Ahmad Bakhsh Khan abdicates.

1827 June – Ghalib leaves from Lucknow for Calcutta (Kolkata).

1827 August Ghalib travels to Banda, where he stays for about six months.

1827 October Ahmad Bakhsh Khan dies.

1828 early – Ghalib travels to Banaras, where he stays for about a month.

1828 February 20 – Ghalib reaches Calcutta; he petitions the Company government for redress of his pension grievances.

1828 June – Ghalib participates in Persian mushairahs; some linguistic objections are raised against his poetry by pupils of Mirza Muhammad Hasan Qatil; he replies to them in his masnavi bād-e muḳhālif, written in a conciliatory tone but insisting on his view that Indian Persian writers are not authoritative for usage and idiom.

1828 June Company government directs him to submit his pension petition in Delhi.

1828 September Ghalib compiles gul-e raʿnā, a selection of his Urdu and Persian poetry, for his friend Maulvi Siraj ud-Din Ahmad. This collection was lost and found much later.

1829 February – Ghalib receives a place and honors in the Governor General’s durbar.

1829 August Ghalib is present at the Governor General’s second Durbar; he leaves Calcutta for Banda.

1829 October Ghalib reaches Banda and stays for a week, then leaves for Delhi.

1829 November 29 Ghalib reaches Delhi.

1831 January Ghalib’s pension claim case is dismissed.

1869 February 15 – Ghalib dies, after falling into a coma on Feb. 14; he is buried at Nizamuddin in the traditional graveyard of the Loharu family.

1955 – The present tomb is built.

Between 1831 and 1868 Ghalib writes some of his best works. There were also multiple events of arrests and fines for cases ranging from fraud to running an illegal gaming in his house.

During his lifetime he made a long journey to Calcutta (Kolkata) which then was the capital city of undivided India to appeal for full restoration of his pension amount.

Mirza Ghalib Reaches Kolkata

Kalkatte kā jo zikr kiyā tū ne ham-nashīñ

ik tiir mere siine meñ maarā ki haa.e haa.e

These were the lines which Ghalib described the city to his friends. To trace back Ghalib’s footprint in the city I had to go through several documents, books, video clips and last but not the least Skype calls to people who could read Urdu and would translate critical pieces of information which could narrow down to the final stop.

A detailed research about the house where Ghalib stayed during his trip to Kolkata was done by Ghalib experts such as Malik Ram, Professor M. Nasir Ali, Shakeel Afroz and others. Ghalib was a prolific letter writer and during his stay in the city had written several letters to his friends and in these letters, he would describe the surroundings often accompanied with a poetry.

When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (5)
One Such Letter postmarks on a letter to Nawab of Rampur, 1867 (Courtesy Muraqqa’-e Ghalib, by Prithvi Chand)

In these letters, the keywords such as Simla Bazar, Gol Talab, Chitpur Bazar can be picked up. Going back to the map of old Kolkata we can clearly see an area depicted as Simla Bazar with a big tank nearby which was named Cornwallis Square. Simla Bazar does not exist now and only a street which is named Simla Street can be found. That Gol Talab is what we now know as Hedua Park or Azad Hind Bag. As per the old maps of the city, Simla Bazar can be seen occupying the place where the present day Christ Church is which is located just opposite to Hedua Park.

An Old Map of Calcutta with Simla Bazar Marked
An Old Map of Calcutta with Simla Bazar Marked
Simla Street – Only This Street Remains in Kolkata
When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (8)
Gol Talab (Cornwallis Square – Hedua Park – Azad Hind Bag)
When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (9)
Gol Talab (Cornwallis Square – Hedua Park – Azad Hind Bag)

Another hint in Ghalib’s letter then mentioned of a water well within the compound of the house. This if we trace the records of the locality narrows down to one house on Bethune Row. House no 133 on Bethune Row was the place where Ghalib had stayed during his visit to Kolkata. The well in the compound of the house was closed off in the year 1935.

When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (10)
House no 133 on Bethune Row – Mirza Ghalib Stayed Here While Visiting the City
When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (11)
House no 133 on Bethune Row – Mirza Ghalib Stayed Here While Visiting the City
When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (12)
Entrance to House no 133 on Bethune Row – Mirza Ghalib Stayed Here While Visiting the City
When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (13)
Entrance to House no 133 on Bethune Row – Mirza Ghalib Stayed Here While Visiting the City

Mirza Ghalib in one of his letters mentioned that he paid a rent of Rs. 6 and Rs. 10 monthly to Mirza Ali Saudagar and Villiat Hussain. This raises the question that Ghalib initially stayed in a smaller home and then shifted. In a letter, he also describes the house as a spacious place with rooms on the upper floors where guests could come and stay.

Apart from his place of residence Ghalib also visited the Dargah of Hazrat Moula AIi Shah which can be easily traced to the Moulali Dargah and also to a Mosque at Kathal Bagan. This mosque is now situated in the present day Dr Lal Mohan Battacharya Road (near Philips bus stand). He had specifically come to this mosque as he had to deliver a letter here which he had received during his stay in Banda. By to time he reached with the letter the original receiver of the letter had already died thus he himself read out the content of the letter to his wife instead.

Dargah of Hazrat Moula AIi Shah
Dargah of Hazrat Moula AIi Shah
When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (15)
Mosque at Kathal Bagan
When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (16)
Mosque at Kathal Bagan
When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (17)
Mosque at Kathal Bagan

This family still lives near the vicinity of the Mosque and also happens to be the ancestor of Professor M. Nasir Ali. I personally went to meet him but unfortunately, he is very unwell and his nephew was kind enough to narrate the story on his behalf.

When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (18)
House of Professor M. Nasir Ali Where Ghalib Had Come To Deliver the Letter

During his stay in the city, Ghalib also visited Calcutta Madrasah College where there used to be regular poetry (mushairahs) sessions. Ghalib participated in these and was initially appreciated but slowly Ghalib started getting into arguments with poet Mirza Quateel and others. They particularly objected to the proper usage of Persian language. Kolkata at that time saw many traders from Persia and also some British Officers who had picked up Persian during their posting come to these mushairahs. There was a difference in the usage of language in poetry in Ghalib’s works which did not appeal to the locals of the city and they seem to raise questions one after the other.

When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (19)
Calcutta Madrasah College
When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (20)
Calcutta Madrasah College

This disturbed Ghalib and slowly he stopped visiting these mushairahs. However this period also saw him write collections such as gul-e raʿnā, a selection of his Urdu and Persian poetry, for his friend Maulvi Siraj ud-Din Ahmad. Thus this collection can truly be called an inspiration of the city of Calcutta.

Mirza Ghalib’s Appeal to the Company

Ghalib’s original quest of a restoration of full pension was not reaching a positive conclusion. He kept appealing but did not receive confirmation from the company. Mirza Ghalib had five requests or appeals that he wanted to present to the company:-

1) His full original pension of 10,000 Rs. was to be restored.

2) The arrears from the day it was reduced was to be paid up in full.

3) His pension belongs to him only and must not be reduced with the increase in heirs from other relatives.

4) His pension was to be paid in Delhi and not in Ferozepur.

5) Conferring some title to him considering him as a noble.

Gul-e raʿnā

Unable to find a resolution to this pension dispute Ghalib left Calcutta in August 1829 and after traveling for a couple of months finally reached Delhi where he continued to live until his death. During the following year’s Ghalib created many masterpieces in Urdu and Persian. His habit of gambling along with various petty incidents led him to imprisonment and this created a deep impact on his health as well as his life as a whole. None of Ghalib’s children had survived to adulthood and his marriage was like an imprisonment for him which he wrote in some of his poems.

This blog would be incomplete without mentioning few lines from his collection that he had compiled here in my city of Kolkata. I am sure the glamour of the city is the capital of the region must have inspired him along with his quest to travel such great distance just to restore an honor which he deemed justified.

When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (21)
Gul-e raʿnā
When Ghalib Came To Kolkata (22)
A portrait of Ghalib that was found by the British among Bahadur Shah’s possessions after the Rebellion; it has been dated to 1856 (Courtesy Columbia University)

Thank You

This blog would not have been possible with the help of friends and unknown strangers who all came forward in helping me to compile this blog. Since I cannot read Urdu and Persian and with my limited understanding capability of Urdu due to its similarity of Hindi I needed someone to translate some documents and help came all the way across the border from Pakistan from Asif Khan. Qussain Gujjar originally from Lahore now settled in Dubai took it to another level by reading out pages from books over Skype calls, this was priceless. Relatives of Professor M. Nasir Ali in Kolkata were extremely helpful in providing me with the necessary confirmation even though professor himself was extremely unwell. Devashis Kuthari thanks for pointing out the video clip which also proved very helpful.

This is not the end of my journey to find Mirza Ghalib, my next blog will be about his home in Delhi as well as his final resting place.

A Collection of Ghalib’s Work As Well As His Life in Books in The Bookstore
A Collection of Ghalib’s Work As Well As His Life in Books in The Bookstore

Map of the Places Where Ghalib Visited

13 thoughts on “When Mirza Ghalib Came To Kolkata

  1. As a die-hard fan of Mirza, I really loved this post. I knew about his Lucknow and Benaras trips, but wasn’t aware that he even visited Kolkata, though it was logical, considering the offices of East India Co.

    As you have mentioned hia addiction for gambling and drinking, Ghalib was once brought before a debtors court for repayment by one of his creditors. The magistrate was an Indian. After hearing the charges, he asked Ghalib if he has any defense. Ghalib recited:

    Karz ki peete the mai, lekin samajhte the, ki haan!
    Rang layegi hamari faqa-masti ek din!

    Though I borrowed and drank, I was aware that these shenanigans would take me to places some day!

    A bohemian and maverick shayar, indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I chanced to visit your post when I was casually browsing to find about Ghalib and Kolkata. Such an informative blog! Much appreciation. The blog reflects a lot of sincerity and love for the man – Ghalib. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

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